Tag Archives: Wisconsin

2014 Big Ten football picks

I think this will be one of the better Big Tens we’ve seen in the past decade or so, but I’m not sure there is an elite team in the league. There should be depth, and that could set things up for a strong 2015, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Ohio State is rebuilding on defense, but that unit could hardly be worse than it was when the ’13 season concluded, so it’s hard to count that as a negative. Michigan State’s offense was a sore spot early last season but finished on a high and returns almost everyone of consequence. They’ll have some new faces on the offensive line, but that unit wasn’t great anyway so they can probably get by with an average front again this season all things considered. Teams may play them differently now that Connor Cook is a known commodity, though. How he responds to that will tell a large part of the tale this season. Recent conference history is littered with quarterbacks who looked good early in their career but plateaued. Big Ten logo

Michigan State is, pardon the pun, green in some spots on defense, and it is unlikely the Spartans will be as tough there regardless of how good coaches Mark Dantonio and Pat Narduzzi have proven to be on that side of the ball. The same can be said of Ohio State’s offensive line, though, so it all could be a wash when the teams play Nov. 8. Continue reading

Big Ten West spring football review

After a bit of a delay for some NFL draft coverage, we have finally wrapped up our spring review for Big Ten football at BuckeyeSports.com. Big Ten logo

Earlier we took a look at the East. Now comes the West, which should have an interesting race.

Iowa and Minnesota both showed great improvement last season while Nebraska and Wisconsin have questions but remain contenders.  Continue reading

A Last Look at the Big Ten Bowls

Earlier, I took an overview of the Big Ten and what it needs to bounce back from a very poor 2012 football season. I take a lot more from the regular season than the bowls, but another sub-.500 record in the postseason certainly doesn’t help the cause of the league.

As far as the games themselves, I’m not sure we learned a whole lot.

  • The 2013 Capital One Bowl was really a quintessential 2012 Nebraska performance as the Cornhuskers gained 443 yards of offense but allowed 146 more than that. They put up 31 points (including an interception returned for a touchdown) but lost by two touchdowns. In short, the offense and defense were both spectacular, one good and one bad. I’d say personnel is the main explanation on both sides – Taylor Martinez progressed significantly (but still has more room to improve even more as a senior) and Nader Abdallah stepped up in the wake of I-back Rex Burkhead’s injury-plagued senior campaign. Aside from Burkhead (whom they’ve shown they can live without), the only real weapons they lose are a pair of talented tight ends, so the offense should continue to hum. Defensively, a bunch of seniors are walking out the door, but I’m not sure that is a bad thing. The talent has steadily dropped on that unit for three consecutive years, and the production has followed. Some new blood could be good, although I would rate Will Compton, Baker Steinkuhler and Eric Martin as players who will be missed. I also think the season and the game demonstrated the double-edged sword that is the multifaceted Bo Pelini (and coordinator John Papuchis) defense. A two-gap defensive line and pattern reading secondary gives the scheme a lot of flexibility, but it also leaves a lot of potential seams that can burst in the case of bad communication. To make matters worse, I don’t think Nebraska had enough guys with the talent to erase mistakes.
  • Michigan’s defensive numbers were largely a mirage. I like their young linebackers a lot, but the defensive line needs a serious upgrade. The secondary was better than it had been two years ago, but that doesn’t say much. The gaudy numbers they had as a secondary in the regular season were mostly a result of the weakness of Big Ten passing games and the weakness of the Michigan defense of line. Teams were plenty happy to run on the Wolverines until they were stopped. I thought Al Borges bounced back with a better game plan against South Carolina and he did, although it could have used some more Denard Robinson. Devin Gardner has a lot of talent, but he is still raw. Michigan has a playmaking wide receiver in Jeremy Gallon, but it remains to be seen if anyone else will step up to join him. Who knows if they will find a playmaker in the backfield, but the offensive line could be a major liability. It will definitely be young. Getting Taylor Lewan back could be a good start, but he’s not actually as productive as his accolades would indicate. That’s probably why the Michigan coaching staff barely gave him any chances to match up one-on-one with Jadeveon Clowney, who only played about half his team’s snaps anyway.
  • I suppose we learned Michigan State does not have unending confidence in Andrew Maxwell, but I guess that shouldn’t be a shock after the season he had. Of course he was made a captain before the season started. Are young quarterback in the expected to struggle, but I think the larger issue was with play calling that did not help them out. Of course, it’s hard to call plays when you can’t block anybody. The Spartans just have to get better up front if they want to be good enough to be an upper-echelon team. They should continue to be very good on defense next year even with the loss of William Gholston early to the pros. Depth is very good on the defensive line for MSU.
  • Northwestern sucked it up and got it done, actually riding a hot start to a postseason victory for a change. The Wildcats’ woeful secondary feasted on Mississippi State for four interceptions and showed some playmaking ability with six tackles for loss, including three sacks. Kain Colter and Venric Mark are wonderful skill players around whom to build an offense, but the offensive line started three seniors who will be missed. The quarterback rotation seems to need some bugs worked out, but a win is a win, especially considering the program’s postseason history.
  • Minnesota showed that it at least belonged in a bowl (for what that’s worth these days) but giving Texas Tech everything it wanted, but the Gophers couldn’t hang onto a late lead and lost on a last-second field goal. Only seven seniors started for the Gophers, who might have something in freshman quarterback Philip Nelson and sophomore running back Donnell Kirkwood. Leading tackler in the game Brock Vereen is due back at safety next year, as is defensive end Rashede Hageman (six tackles, one sack).
  • Purdue was kind enough to leave no doubt it made the right move in letting go Danny Hope. My only other thought on that game was that it will be refreshing to evaluate their 2013 roster with the impression any apparent talents won’t be wasted like they were under the Hope regime, which was plagued by injuries and undisciplined play. There are some dangerous skill guys on the roster if they all come back to play for new head coach Darrell Hazell, a former Ohio State assistant.
  • Rare is the Rose Bowl that feels like an afterthought, but it was hard to take much from Wisconsin’s loss to Stanford. Kudos to the Badgers for hanging tough after falling behind 14-0, but the Cardinal did not exactly lower the boom. Both teams were very conservative, owing to the total of 37 passes thrown and 34 points scored (not that I don’t love a good slugfest and the many varieties of running plays each team came out with). The game did serve as further validation to me of the improvement of the Wisconsin front seven, a group I was not high on at all entering the season but that turned in a really nice campaign. Most of it should be back, so that is a good building block for the new coaching staff in Madison. Nine seniors started on offense or defense for the Badgers, so they will be young and/or unproven at a lot of places in 2013.

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Taking Stock Of The Big Ten and the Nation

Well, another college football season has come and gone and all we learned was that Alabama is still really good and Notre Dame isn’t back yet. Oh, and following NCAA rules is a good idea just in case you happen to go undefeated unexpectedly some year. Failing that, at least don’t get caught if you happen to bend the rules.

As for the finale on Monday night, I was able to watch the national championship game without remorse for the carnage or taking any particular joy in it, either.

I respect the SEC for what it has done in terms of hiring coaches and recruiting and developing players rather then hate it for its success, and being born in the ’80s, I don’t have any strong emotions about Notre Dame.

I see the pros and cons of the whole Fighting Irish thing. There’s some arrogance there, yeah, but that’s true of many programs. My first really vivid memory of Notre Dame is Gary Barnett telling his Northwestern players to expect victory and not carry him off the field when the Wildcats win. That was almost 20 years ago. They haven’t really been good enough to be annoying ever since.

The degree to which some Irish teams have been overrated in the meantime probably helped the Big Ten, if anything. It helped vault John Cooper’s still fledgling OSU program onto the national scene in the mid-90s and many a Michigan season was set up for ultimately being disappointing thanks to a thrashing of the Irish in September.

Of course, Michigan and its in-state neighbors in East Lansing returned the favor this year, going down to Notre Dame in the first month of the season when the Irish were still trying to gain a spot in the national title picture.

As for the conference of the Wolverines and Spartans, I found the reaction to the Big Ten’s most recent bowl performances a bit puzzling. Or at least over the top.

Yes, the league won only two games, but I’m not sure if you noticed but that was what was supposed to happen. Nor was it surprising that several of the games were competitive. It’s not as if the Big Ten has been getting blown out in every game every New Year’s Day for the past five years. Yet both of these happenings this year produced a lot of hot air that missed the main point.

The problem for the conference remains what it has been since at least the middle of the past decade: inferior coaching. That is exacerbated in the postseason by systematically poor matchups that can be attributed to no other than Jim Delany.

The conference – presumably intentionally – signed up to play the best team in the Pac-10, and a bunch of team from the SEC every year. This is no excuse, just a fact. Delany is correct when he says they haven’t ducked anybody when it comes to postseason matchups. I have no problem with that, but it probably should be acknowledged when we go about wondering what’s wrong with the league.

Of course this year it did not send its best team (Ohio State), and another 8-win squad (Penn State) had to stay home as well. That kept Wisconsin out of a more winnable matchup and basically assured a Rose Bowl loss. So strictly in regards to the postseason, it’s really been a death by 1,000 cuts now for going on more than half a decade, and reiterating that doesn’t serve much purpose.

The larger problems certainly lie with general program strength from top to bottom, and those come almost exclusively from a lack of quality coaching hires in the past decade or more.

Big Ten teams and Big Ten fans can complain all they want about Ohio State’s string of high-profile nonconference losses in the middle of the past decade, but until they build a program of their own big enough to knock the Buckeyes off they don’t really have a leg to stand on.

Bad coaching hires have a tendency to create a ripple effect, too, as they can set back roster building for years.

Delany wanted his teams to face the best and play on New Year’s Day. Now he’s reaping what he sowed. But the commissioner is certainly not the main culprit here (and based on an interview he gave to the ESPN Big Ten Blog, he plans to address some of the issues). He also gave every school in the conference a financial leg up with its last TV deal and the brilliantly forward-thinking creation of the Big Ten Network, but few of them have done much to take advantage.

Despite worry about the great migration of population to the South and west, there are enough players to stock plenty of solid-to-good programs in the Midwest. Ohio State, the only school sitting in a talent rich state, might be the only one with the resources to be a consistent national power anymore. Michigan is back in the discussion thanks to its history and proximity to Ohio, but it is too early to tell what the ceiling will be for Brady Hoke’s program.

Regardless of the status of the unbeaten Buckeyes and the rebuilding Wolverines, the rest of the league needn’t be as weak as it has been for the majority of the past seven seasons, and there is unfortunately a lot of uncertainty yet on the immediate horizon across the league.

With or without Bret Bielema, Wisconsin’s days of regular double-digit wins were probably over with Ohio State’s return from NCAA purgatory and Michigan’s return from its self-imposed Rodriguezisation. Darker days may be ahead for Michigan State, too, if it gets more competition for local players it has been getting in the past few years who would have traditionally been more likely to be Buckeyes or Wolverines.

Penn State is in limbo, and Nebraska has some serious soul searching to do, but all is far from lost in Lincoln.

All of those schools – along with Iowa – have the money, fan bases and name brands to be tough outs every year even if they have little chance of being true national contenders.

I think Indiana is moving (slowly) in the right direction with Kevin Wilson, and Purdue could be, too, with newly hired Darrell Hazell.

Illinois should be better based on the population base it’s near and the popularity of football there, but it remains to be seen if they are far from needing yet another reboot.

That Northwestern can be in a bowl and be competitive every year shows anything is possible.

The league just needs coaches (including assistants) who can build and develop stable rosters. That means identifying talent throughout the region and getting it to stay home. Coaching it up wouldn’t hurt, either.

The SEC has done a better job of keeping its best players in the region going to SEC schools than has the Big Ten in the Midwest, and that is a real issue. It includes not only the handful of elite guys who have gone to Texas or Alabama or USC from Ohio but also the next-tier prospects who slip through the cracks and end up as stars in the MAC or the Big East. I respect the coaching being done in those leagues, but there is no reason for a Big Ten team to lose in recruiting to them. The difference in exposure thanks to the disparity of television contracts (and resulting revenue) should provide a major advantage for a coach when he goes into a kid’s living room.

Recruiting is an inexact science, but consider that of the eight players from the Mid-American Conference drafted last season, five were from Big Ten states. Two more were from New Jersey, a contiguous state traditionally recruited by Penn State.

Of the 12 Big East players drafted, half were from Big Ten country. That includes four from the University of Cincinnati who grew up in Big Ten country but not very near the Queen City. The Bearcat program has grown quite nicely in the past decade, but other than hometown pride, what does it offer that betters any Big Ten program? Not every Big East game is even on real television.

It is unlikely many – perhaps any – of those kids turned down Big Ten programs to go to the MAC or Big East, but that hardly absolves anyone. There are always surprise success stories, but the best coaches find and develop them consistently. Danny Hope and Tim Brewster and even Rich Rodriquez might still be in the league if they did a better job of identifying who can help them and offering them rather than letting them end up elsewhere.

Then the league might have more to look forward to next bowl season.

Bye Bye Bielema, Hello Hazell

Two coaching moves in the Big Ten this week are interesting particularly from a standpoint of program ceilings.

Before this season I had already begun to think Wisconsin’s program had peaked. The 7-5 record certainly did not change my mind despite the blowout of a wishy-washy Nebraska team in the Big Ten championship game.

I never really felt Bret Bielema was a good game day coach, but he obviously did a good job of running a program overall. I think a lot of the success on the field had to do with the fact he knew what type of guys to recruit for Wisconsin and where to find them. A lot of credit for that no doubt goes to Barry Alvarez as he laid down the blueprint and left plenty of players behind to help him get off to a good start. (Bielema’s soft landing also benefitted from missing Ohio State in 2006.)

Like any program, Wisconsin has a ceiling. That ceiling is lower than Ohio State and Michigan. Bielema probably knows that. Perhaps that’s even why he is headed to Arkansas now. My first reaction was you’ve got to get out while the getting is good.

Considering the role Michigan’s disastrous hire of Rich Rodriquez (and before that the barely noticed nationally decline in the latter years of Lloyd Carr’s tenure masked by a misleading 2006 season) and sanctions at Ohio State played in the Badgers’ rise these past three years, there is little chance he will replicate his first seven years in the next seven.

Carr’s national recruiting push opened the door for other Big Ten teams to build relationships with a lot of quality programs and players in Ohio, and Rodriquez’s bizarre ideas about what types of players he could win with in the Big Ten only made it easier to upgrade the roster.

Will he have the Razorbacks consistently contending for division titles in the SEC? I doubt it, but only time will tell. Bringing in a well-known coach with a tendency toward power football has its appeal, and Bielema cashing in now certainly makes all the sense in the world. (I kind of feel like he owes Wisconsin AD Alvarez more loyalty than that after the opportunity Alvarez afforded him in the first place, but that’s debatable.)

I think he has the right type of personality to recruit in the South, and he’s already experienced as far as going after talent in Florida. Success in those areas will of course have as much to do with his staff as anything, and it remains to be seen who he will hire.

Though Bielema made his early mark as a defensive coordinator, his Wisconsin defenses were never particularly scary.

The offenses were, but the man who schemed them up had already left for Pitt last year and took several of Bielema’s top assistants with him. The work Paul Chryst did in Madison (his hometown) rarely got the attention it deserved, but he did an excellent job playing to the strengths of his personnel while still mixing things up. As quarterbacks coach he also got a surprising amount of productivity out of a string of nondescript talents (prior to the tremendous Russell Wilson), something key to keeping the running game from getting swarmed.

The bottom line is that while Bielema put together an impressive winning percentage, it is rather hollow. He was 14-17 against the other top six teams in the league, and that includes a 3-2 mark against rival Iowa and 2-1 record against Nebraska. Despite talk he posed a threat to Ohio State, he was 1-5 against the Buckeyes. He went 3-2 against Michigan, again benefitting from the dip of that program, and was a game below .500 against both MSU and PSU.

In regards to his ability to coach on Saturdays, it’s interesting to note he lost to the two worst teams Ohio State and Michigan produced during his tenure, sub-.500 squads of 2011 and 2008, respectively.

Bielema was 2-4 in bowls, including an 0-2 mark in the Rose Bowl, and couldn’t really hope to get a signature out-of-conference win in the regular season because of Wisconsin’s pitiful scheduling habits.

Now, that is not to say the Badgers are better off without him. People tend to forget that before Alvarez came along, Wisconsin was mostly a doormat for about 30 years. Sometimes you have to know who you are and be satisfied with what you have.

Bielema’s replacement probably won’t have as good a seven years as Bielema just finished, but I doubt Bielema would have either if he’d stayed in Madison.

If they can find a better game manager who is as good at identifying and attracting players for his system, maybe the Badgers will be better. They might also be worse.

Meanwhile, Darrell Hazell’s widely reported jump to the Big Ten is intriguing in a number of ways as well.

A former Jim Tressel assistant at Ohio State, Hazell has great knowledge of the Big Ten. With roots in the east at Rutgers (among other places), he could be uniquely qualified to function in the new Big Ten after Maryland and Rutgers join the league, too.

That could turn out to be especially important at a place like Purdue, which I think along with Indiana is the hardest place to win in the league.

The fact is Hoosier State just does not produce a lot of players, and that situation is exacerbated by the fact there are two programs there to fight over them. Of course the proximity of Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan just to name three is another issue.

If there is any benefit to expansion, it’s the added money and exposure from the Big Ten Network. Hazell might be coming along at just the right time to take advantage of those things and lift up a program that has one Big Ten title in the past four decades.

This is easy for me to say because it’s someone else’s career and opportunities can be fleeting, but I am inclined to think Hazell would have been better off waiting for a job with a higher ceiling, but I guess there’s no reason he can’t follow Bielema’s lead if his star ever shines as brightly.

My 2012 Big Ten Football Picks

You should check out the Buckeye Sports Bulletin football preview issue for my full view of the race, but here is how I see the top of each division shaking out. 

The Division That Should Be the West: 

Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska should stage an interesting battle for divisional supremacy.

MSU head coach Mark Dantonio will miss All-American defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, but the front seven is remarkably deep as several years of strong recruiting seem to be paying off on the line and at linebacker. Worthy was a fine player, but some of his success might have been a product of the overall quality of the unit. William Gholston has the makings of an even bigger star at defensive end while Max Bullough and Denicos Allen are special talents at linebacker.

There are major questions on the other side of the ball in East Lansing, but I think they can get by with a so-so scoring unit thanks to the ‘D’. Dantonio claims to have supreme confidence in sophomore Andrew Maxwell, but he is an unknown at this point. All of his targets at receiver and tight end will be new, too, but new wideouts DeAnthony Arnett and Tony Lippett along with tight end Dion Sims are considered potential playmakers.

Junior running back Le’Veon Bell is an impact running back, but the Spartans have questions on the offensive front.

I was only one of many caught off guard by Michigan’s success last season, and I am still a skeptic of the Wolverines in 2012. They played far better fundamentally on both sides of the ball last season, but they also benefited from a remarkable run of beneficial bounces.

Even as a senior, I think Denard Robinson remains a wild card. He has dynamic talent but probably can’t get away with throwing another 15 interceptions this time around, as he did in 2011. Offensive coordinator Al Borges did an admirable job bending his pro-style attack to Robinson’s skills, and it will be interesting to see how that evolves this season.

Defensively, Michigan should continue to mature in the back seven, but the Wolverines will be green at key spots up front.

Ultimately, I believe the loss of All-America center David Molk and All-Big Ten defensive tackle Mike Martin will be tough to overcome, leaving the Wolverines vulnerable in the trenches, where depth remains a question until Brady Hoke’s recruiting classes get some seasoning. That could change if five-star defensive tackle prospect Will Campbell finally lives up to his billing. The bet here is that he won’t. Fifth-year senior Ricky Barnum, to now seldom-used, is the choice to replace Molk.

Then there is Nebraska. I picked the Cornhuskers to win the Big Ten in their first season in the league, but head coach Bo Pelini’s team faltered down the stretch and finished a disappointing 9-4 with three conference losses.

Year two in offensive coordinator Tim Beck’s unique option scheme should be better than year one, but will Taylor Martinez ever grow into a consistent passer? I am not sure that he will, but it might not be necessary if he and All-Big Ten running back Rex Burkhead can scare teams enough on the ground. The offensive line, with its fondness for cut blocks, could become a plug-and-play unit, while a callow group of receivers could show some improvement this season.

Things could look a little different on defense with new coordinator John Papuchis in charge, and that might not be a bad thing after the famed Blackshirts gave up 44 more yards and six more points per game than in 2010. Pelini hopes more experience will help in the secondary while better depth improves the front seven. Expect the coaching staff to use the benefit of a year’s worth of familiarity with league opponents when it comes to game-planning.

Division That Should Be The East:

While many expect Wisconsin to run away with the division as Ohio State and Penn State (who will probably be terrible) ineligible, Purdue and Illinois both have some darkhorse potential.

The Boilermakers have never been able to quite get over the hump in Danny Hope’s three seasons at the helm, but things might break right for him in 2012. He has three quarterbacks with starting experience – Caleb TerBush, Robert Marve and Rob Henry – and a handful of potential contributors at the skill positions. If the offensive line improves, Purdue could have a puncher’s chance to reach the top of the division. Nine starters return on defense, including defensive tackle Kawann Short and cornerback Ricardo Allen, two players among the best in the league at their positions.

Talent is less an issue than discipline and consistency for the Purdue during the Hope years.

Similar sentiments could apply to the Fighting Illini, but they are under new management this season in the form of head coach Tim Beckman. The former Ohio State assistant has solid building blocks on both sides of the ball: quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and linemen Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton on offense with linebacker Jonathan Brown, linemen Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence and cornerback Terry Hawthorne on defense.

The onus is on Scheelhaase to pick up a new spread offense and lead on his side. He should get some help from running backs Josh Ferguson and Donovan Young as well as multitalented Miles Osei.

If the offense can improve from one of the worst in the country last season to even decent, it could offset graduation losses from what was a top 15 defense nationally in both yardage (seventh) and scoring (15th).

Then there is Wisconsin. The Badgers are two-time Big Ten champs and a fashionable pick to go for three, but that will be easier said than done. Stopping senior running back Monte Ball is a formidable challenge for any defense, and the Badgers figure to be strong as usual on the front line. However, expecting Maryland transfer Danny O’Brien to replicate the success of 2011 sensation Russell Wilson might be asking too much. O’Brien is a solid passer, but Wilson’s ability to freelance and create big plays after the initial plan broke down will certainly be missed. Will Jared Abbrederis step up as the No. 1 receiver with Nick Toon having graduated? Can Abbrederis, a former walk-on, replicate his 55 catches for 933 yards and eight touchdowns without Toon to draw attention on the other side?

My guess is the offense will not be as unstoppable as it has been the last two seasons, but it should still be quite good. The stop unit is another story. The propensity to put up huge point totals has masked a decline in defense the past two seasons, and another year of maturity might not do it for the six returning starters. Head coach Bret Bielema is banking on a big impact from defensive end David Gilbert and cornerback Devin Smith from injury, but neither of them were exactly All-Big Ten Players before they were sidelined. Last year teams like Ohio State and Oregon made the Badgers look slow on defense.

In conclusion… 

I think Michigan State will get just enough on offense to ride that defense to a 7-1 mark in the league with its only setback coming against the Cornhuskers. That could include close calls against Michigan and Ohio State, however, not to mention the annually kooky contest with Northwestern (set for the penultimate game of the regular season and the Spartans’ Senior Day this time around).

Illinois’ conference schedule is front-loaded with trips to Wisconsin and Michigan in early October, but the Fighting Illini could lose those games and still find time to come together down the stretch and get back into the race with Wisconsin. However, because of tiebreakers the Fighting Illini will probably have to be perfect the rest of the way if they lose to the Badgers and Wolverines, and I am not ready to say they will be able to pull that off. Thus, I’m going with Wisconsin.

The Spartans prevail in Indianapolis this time and go on to the Rose Bowl while Nebraska benefits from sitting at home on championship weekend and having a huge fan base, thus getting an at-large bid to the BCS.

Ohio State-Wisconsin final thoughts

This game came down to open-field tackling, blocking and the quarterbacks.

The Badgers’ senior quarterback should be way ahead of Ohio State’s freshman in terms of consistency, and that should open up a lot of things from a general playcalling standpoint. However, Russell Wilson committed several miscues one would not expect from a senior quarterback, and that mitigated the difference. Despite his limitations, Braxton Miller made enough plays with his feet (about six) and his arm (about three) for his team to win the game.

I counted 13 times Miller or Boom Herron left a Wisconsin tackler in a wake of rubber bits, a major key to the Buckeyes’ offensive success. There were numerous times Wisconsin’s defense should have worked on paper but Miller or Herron blew it up.

Of course both of those things were greatly influenced by the fact Ohio State’s defensive front seven is way better than Wisconsin’s, and that is where the game was really won. Neither Ohio State coordinator drew up much in the way of fancy schemes. The Buckeyes did their stuff on both sides of the ball and let the big ugglies beat up the competition.

All four starting defensive linemen for Ohio State had standout games. John Simon was nearly unblockable, and Adam Bellamy flashed some surprising playmaking. Johnathan Hankins kept chugging along at an All-Big Ten level, but the big story of the night was Garrett Goebel. The junior played by far his best college game against Wisconsin, constantly neutralizing double-teams and overpowering any interior lineman who got singled up on him.

That made life pretty good for the OSU linebackers, who all turned in nice performances. Of particular note is Etienne Sabino, who seems to be seeing things more quickly and reacting better. He also came up and stoned a blocker to set the edge on the big fourth-and-2 in the fourth quarter when Ohio State was still clinging to a lead.

The secondary was hit or miss. Bradley Roby was tremendous in run support, and C.J. Barnett tackled superbly. Christian Bryant’s recklessness got him in trouble a few times, and Travis Howard had a nice hit on Nick Toon but also gave up a lot of room at times.

I think both teams have pretty good offensive lines, but Ohio State’s had the far better night. I thought Mike Adams, Andrew Norwell and Jack Mewhort were the standouts there. Tight end Jake Stoneburner also continues to have a pretty good year as a blocker, atoning for a costly dropped pass on a third down early in the game. Of course, fullback Zach Boren was exemplary again.

I look at the two punt gaffes to have canceled each other out, and truth be told, you could make the same case for the last two touchdown passes, so the fact Ohio State needed Miller’s unlikely heroics don’t really alter my view of the game. They should not have been necessary.

I guess it’s difficult to assess how much weight to give mistakes in measuring the quality of a football team. If mistakes are chronic, they certainly matter. If they are occasional or fluky, then perhaps they don’t. Perhaps this is something to examine later on…

The point I’m trying to make is there was remarkably little way to tell which team was the favorite if you just watched the way they went at each other. That bodes well for Ohio State’s future.

Despite having virtually no passing game, the Buckeyes controlled most of the game, which arguably makes their overall success that much more impressive. They made a great offense look pedestrian without needing that offense to do much in the way of stopping itself.

Random notes: 

  • Herron’s long run to open the third quarter might have had the same effect the kickoff return in Madison had last season. It really set a tone.
  • I thought Ohio State did a decent job of mixing in some option while hammering away with Herron. Wisconsin’s defensive line is not all that big, so it made sense to attack up the middle most of the night.
  • Also nice to see them mix in a short pass or two to help Miller get some completions under his belt.
  • Miller has magic feet. Multiple times Wisconsin had a sound defense against him but couldn’t get him on the ground. Sometimes a pass play can be a great running play for Ohio State because of this. However, it is hard to tell if he is reading the zone read and inverted veers incorrectly a lot of the time or the plays are predetermined in the huddle. They were leaving a guy unblocked, which would seem to indicate a read, but I’m not sure, and it didn’t occur to me to ask after the game.
  • None of Wisconsin’s offensive linemen looked good, but that had a lot to do with who they were facing. The interior guys really got beaten up and right tackle Josh Oglesby was pretty much dominated the whole night.
  • The Buckeyes actually stopped that end-around that has been a thorn in their side for about five years in a row. Tyler Moeller posted up a blocker and road it all the way to the sideline. Moeller also was a man setting the edge most of the night, and he did an admirable job of tailing the talented Toon in pass coverage.
  • Jordan Hall bounced back from his early struggles returning punts to turn in a strong punt return to set up a field goal and a kick to set up the final touchdown He also had a couple of key blocks on Miller runs.
  • Have to agree with Ross Fulton’s pregame declaration that Wisconsin’s Chris Borland looks out of position playing in the middle. He was a big playmaker on the outside before a shoulder injury, but he was nearly a nonfactor last week. I’m actually surprised at how many tackles he ended up with. He seemed frequently caught up in the wash inside. Of course, a lot of people are going to have bad nights when Boren is zeroing in on them every play. Mike Taylor was pretty much fantastic in all facets of the game, of course.
  • On Wisconsin’s first touchdown, I think I understand why Christian Bryant went for the ball. It was behind Montee Ball, so he had to feel like he could get to it, but the Wisconsin running back snagged it out of the air with both hands in a heady and difficult move. Then he made Andrew Sweat look silly in the open field to finish off the play. I think if the pass was always directed for Ball’s chest, Bryant might approach it differently. However, that does not mean Bryant had a good game. He missed a couple of other tackles, and I believe he was the guy out of place on the long touchdown pass that momentarily gave the Badgers the lead in the fourth quarter.
  • Wisconsin’s has good straight line speed on defense but is not necessarily athletic. Not so good at changing of direction.

How Do You Like Me Now?

What better than some Toby Keith to usher in November and recognize Ohio State’s return to the Big Ten championship race with a thrilling win against would-be bully Wisconsin?

What we learned last week: Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to be too young to know any better.

Wisconsin’s late rally nearly undid a full game’s worth of good work for a Buckeye team that has endured more than a season’s worth of anguish already. As I wrote in the cover story for this week’s Buckeye Sports Bulletin, there was too much familiar about watching Jared Abbrederis haul in that pass from Russell Wilson and score the go-ahead touchdown.

I was on the sideline by that time, and I knew the feelings of despair and confused anger that were being expressed all around me. I saw and felt the same thing the last two times Ohio State played a ranked team at home under the lights, the only difference from the collapses against Penn State and USC being the lead once looked much safer against the Badgers.

I hit the stadium floor just before Braxton Miller took a snap from center and ran around end for a 44-yard touchdown that seemed to lift the lid off the stadium. There were not only cheers but sighs of relief, a feeling finally one of these ones would go the way of the home team. It was just after the defense turned back yet another Wisconsin short-yardage run, and the two plays taken together made it seem like a clear picture of the night was taking shape. Ohio State had exorcised a demon in last year’s loss to the Badgers, gotten over the marquee night game hump, proved it had regained the toughness Wisconsin stripped away in 2010 and, oh yeah, there was another athletic guy with a bright future leading at the helm of the offense.

Then the ghosts returned. A quick Wisconsin touchdown drive and a predictable (and perhaps understandable) three-and-out followed by a rarely seen deep zone breakdown. Suddenly all was wrong again. Many of the old stereotypes about the Buckeyes of the past six or seven years began to re-establish themselves. No backbone. No mental toughness. Not good enough to get it done against similarly matched teams. Those stories literally were already being written by the time Jordan Hall took that kickoff back near midfield and the newest young field general trotted onto the field.

Who knows if Braxton Miller knew he was going to lead a comeback for the ages when he winked at head coach Luke Fickell to reassure him. Who knows how often those types of things go on but we don’t hear about them because they don’t make for a good story if the deep passes are intercepted.

What was Miller really thinking?

It doesn’t really matter. It might be better if it was nothing in particular. Sometimes young and carefree is the best way to be. That worked out on this night, and now the future looks bright.

As for the opponent, I still think Wisconsin is a good team, but the Buckeyes really got after them, especially on defense. Ohio State took away Wisconsin’s will to run the ball, which is no small feat, and they made Wilson look uncomfortable in the pocket all night. I think he’s a better player than he showed at the Horseshoe, and that is a credit to Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Heacock and the game his front seven turned in. They kept Wilson in the pocket and made him hurry a lot of throws. His poise was disappointing until the end.

Ohio State’s offensive line did just what it should have against the Badgers: Dominate. That was the name of the game, and Boom Herron continued to make a case for most improved Buckeye I have ever seen.

What we can expect to learn this week: Truth be told, there may not be a team in the Big Ten that can teach us less than Indiana. The Hoosiers are pretty awful. They have questions at quarterback as they attempt to install a new hurry-up offense, and the old problems on defense are as real as ever. There are a couple of intriguing running backs, and the wide receivers aren’t bad, but new head coach Kevin Wilson has a lot of work to do.

I’d say this provides a good mental test for the still-young Buckeyes after an emotional win, but they should be able to win even with a C- effort.

I suppose a reintroduction to some principles of stopping a spread offense can’t hurt with a somewhat improved Michigan team still out there to be dealt with at the end of the month, but that might be stretching it somewhat.

Indiana can move the ball a bit, as evidenced by the way the Hoosiers gashed what we now know to be a somewhat suspect Wisconsin front seven, but there is not much to be scared of other than complacency.

Every snap this young group can get is valuable, of course, and it will be interesting to see if they try to throw the ball a little more just to get Miller more reps in that department. Sometimes these snoozers are the games in which the Ohio State offense comes closest to letting it all hang out. They used this same Hoosier program to work out some kinks in the passing game last year, so perhaps that bears watching this time around.

All-Buckeye Beater Nominees: Well the obvious choice is Wisconsin linebacker Mike Taylor, who notched an astounding 22 tackles, including 2.5 for loss, and broke up a pass.

I’m still debating what to do with Wilson, who looked mediocre to poor for most of the game before rallying his team to two late touchdowns, but I will definitely look back at the night Abbrederis produced (six catches, 113 yards, two touchdowns) when I sit down to pick the best of the Buckeyes’ competition this season.

That’s a surprisingly short list, to be sure, but that’s what happens when a vaunted offensive line is so thoroughly dealt with and a defense proves it is lacking playmakers. The Badgers’ second best defensive player, Chris Borland, had 13 tackles but often looked to be on the wrong end of lead blocks from his opposite No. 44, fullback Zach Boren.

DVR Directions: Now that November is upon us, I recommend you kick up a notch your studies of Michigan. I know I will. As such, set the DVR to record the Wolverines’ trip to Iowa (Noon, ESPN) because it takes place as the same time the Buckeyes will tangle with the Hoosiers.

At 3:30, check out next week’s Ohio State opponent, Purdue, as the Boilermakers head to Madison to take on Wisconsin. Then make sure you have a nice spot to watch the clash between Alabama and LSU in prime time.

Big Ten Picks: Anyone who would pick Iowa to win any time soon has to be nuts, so Michigan is the default pick in Iowa City this weekend. The Hawkeyes have some legitimate problems going on with the rebuilding process, but there is no excuse for losing at Minnesota, who will feel Michigan State’s wrath this week in East Lansing.

Northwestern has been somewhat enigmatic this year, but the Wildcats look poorly matched with resurgent Nebraska. The Cornhuskers figure to enjoy getting to look at another spread offense for a change of pace.

I’m having a bit of a hard time getting a read on Purdue as well. There seems to be some potential there at the skill positions and on defense, but Danny Hope’s squad can’t put it together. Don’t look for that to change this week in Madison. The Badgers get back on the winning track.

Record last week: 4-1. Season record: 16-6

Cus Words Big Ten Power Poll

Umm, do I have to rank them this week? So far it’s looking like everyone has decided to let the Big Ten title game sort out who is best and not bother to prove it during the regular season. OK, here goes…

  1. Nebraska
  2. Michigan State
  3. Ohio State
  4. Wisconsin
  5. Michigan
  6. Penn State
  7. Iowa
  8. Illinois
  9. Northwestern
  10. Purdue
  11. Minnesota
  12. Indiana

Ohio State-Wisconsin: First Thoughts

What a nutty night. 

It was one of those hot-and-cold mid-fall days in Ohio when the temperature drops 15-20 degrees between noon and nine and you’ve never quite sure how to dress. Consequently, there are moments you feel warm enough to work up a bit of a sweat but that only makes you feel a greater chill later.

That turned out to be appropriate for the game.

Ultimately, Wisconsin got punked, but the Badgers almost won anyway as errors trumped the Buckeyes’ earlier opportunism. Yet Ohio State fought back and finally caught a break.

The first Wisconsin scoring drive showed why I thought Ohio State would have a hard time getting stops. They had the defense off balance, and then Russell Wilson hit Montee Ball over the middle and Ball made a phenomenal play to put the ball in the end zone. Both have done that a lot this season, so that came as little surprise. But Wilson was not sharp for long stretches of the game, and the Silver Bullets rose to the occasion.

The linebackers who I thought might be a liability again played well for a second straight week, and the entire defensive line stepped up. Unsung Garrett Goebel held strong in the middle while John Simon and Johnathan Hankins continued to dominate and Adam Bellamy pulled out a spin move to notch a big sack. Safety C.J. Barnett continued to evolved into one of the best players at his position in the conference, but the rest of the defensive backfield had its ups and downs. Of course, since no one else can throw the ball in the Big Ten, they’ll have some time to get better.

I say the Badgers got punked because a year after physically dominating Ohio State and reveling in the aftermath with their head coach talking about how he expected it to happen, they showed the Buckeyes a lot of respect. Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst generally does a great job, but he never found any type of rhythm. He seemed a bit too eager to be balanced, calling Wilson’s number more than Ball’s early, and that hurt them. Then I was very surprised to see them try to run outside on a fourth-and-2 in the fourth quarter. Was this the big, bad Badgers who could not impose their will? Indeed.

Wilson threw three touchdown passes, but he seemed far more erratic than his stat line indicates. They Buckeyes made him uncomfortable in the pocket and he made a number of poor throws. He rarely found any room to run when things broke down, either, a key difference from the week before in East Lansing.

Zach Boren came into the post game interview room sporting two things indicative of the type of night it was: a big. blue and yellow bump under his right eye and a smile that wouldn’t go away. The win was as satisfying as you’ll ever see, the Buckeyes rising to the occasion in the rare role of underdogs. Although he is still longing for that first carry, Boren was one of the main cogs, too. He blew up Wisconsin linebackers repeatedly, clearing the way for Boom Herron to bob and weave his way for 160 yards. Herron has provided an almost unbelievable spark, firing up the front to make holes for him and creating things when they aren’t there. The offensive line was outstanding, taking advantage of a completely average Wisconsin front and creasing it time after time. That kept the down and distance manageable much of the night, helping a surprising 11 for 20 performance on third downs.

And what can you say about Braxton Miller? As his confidence grows, his football sense just seems to flow. He has an uncommon agility in the open field, and he can wing it when he gets a chance. He’s still got plenty of kinks to work out, but how amazing was his game-winning touchdown pass? He has gone from looking like he was two steps behind the defense most plays to two steps ahead in the tightest spot of his career. Not only did he escape the pocket to buy himself some time, he pointed Philly Brown to run to the corner to clear out the safety, then stopped to chuck one for classmate Devin Smith, who was open despite not knowing what the play call exactly was. He saw it and executed it, and the Buckeyes are back in the Big Ten race.

I would not have thought Ohio State could make that many mistakes and win, but the defense played at a championship level for about the middle 50 minutes of the game. And when that group blinked and the beleaguered Buckeyes looked ready to crumble again as they have too many times in similar situations in the past five years, a couple of guys too young to know what pressure is came through and produced a win for the ages.

Ohio State improved to 5-0 all time when unranked and facing a ranked Wisconsin team. All of the previous such meetings took place while Woody Hayes roamed the sidelines but before he had been talked into installing the I formation to supplement his believed Robust T offense. Hayes was 27-1 against the Badgers, who enjoyed a great decade of the 1950s but fell off the map for most of three decades that followed. Halfway through this season, I think they had started to believe they were not only again a Big Ten power but also a national player. Now they’ve blinked twice in the face of adversity, although they deserve credit for coming back in both games. Where do they go from here? Well they have to get help now to reach the Big Ten championship game because the Buckeyes hold the tiebreaker on them.

I don’t think Ohio State exposed Wisconsin. Michigan State handled that. The Buckeyes just further proved the Badgers aren’t very good on defense as long as you can withstand the blows from the offense. I don’t think Wisconsin’s rebuilt offensive line was overrated. I think Ohio State just happens to have a very good and still improving defensive line with two future first-round draft picks who are not yet even seniors. Guys good enough to make a team that thinks it hangs its hat on power offense run laterally when it needed two yards on a fourth down while trailing in the fourth quarter.

The Big Ten’s bullies switched hats again. The Buckeyes decided one year was long enough for Wisconsin to be able to lay claim to that title. Now we might be in for a fun little ride as a young group that has endured more than its share of mental anguish looks to harness the good vibes from consecutive wins over ranked teams and ride it all the way to Indianapolis, where they might get a rematch with one of the teams that beat it during its incubatory stage.

 

Overheard at Ohio State Football: Wisconsin Week

Another week of preparation for a football game has come and gone at Ohio State. Here’s a recap of what the Buckeye players and coaches had to say leading up to the Wisconsin game in case you need a reminder or you missed anything. 

FICKELLISMS

(For personnel updates, check out the BuckeyeSports.com story)

Ohio State’s head coach said he did not see the end of the Wisconsin-Michigan State game live because he had been in bed for an hour or so, but he saw many replays. He does not expect Wisconsin to be extra down because of the way the Badgers lost. A loss is a loss, no matter if it is close or not.

The Buckeyes have to worry more about taking care of their own business. He was asked about some of the guys celebrating on Twitter and said if that helps them believe in themselves a little more or feel a little more motivation, that’s good.

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